Lusail, Qatar – At Qatar’s largest football stadium, Lusail Stadium, there was little doubt as to who set the tone: Argentina’s fans far outnumbered Saudi Arabia’s supporters as the two countries’ national men’s teams went head-to-head in their opening game. World Cup 2022 contest.

From the corridors of the subway station to the stands in the stadium – whose design was inspired by the fanar lantern – it was a sea of ​​blue and white as Argentines and many of Albiceleste’s supporters erupted in chants and chants of “Vamos Argentina” ( Let’s go Argentina).

“Our fans are the best,” says Mariano Alvarez, a fan from Rosario, the birthplace of Argentine superstar Lionel Messisaid Al Jazeera. “I know I’m biased, but we really don’t let money or work stop us from traveling to support our team,” he said.

“For us, football is a kind of religion… along with Christianity,” added the 52-year-old, who is attending his second World Cup after Brazil in 2014.

Argentina fans
Argentina supporters were optimistic about their team’s World Cup chances [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Like thousands of other Argentines at the stadium, Alvarez had to travel nearly 24 hours to reach Qatar in a circuitous journey that included a layover in Spain.

The Saudi fan numbers, on the other hand, pale in comparison, despite Saudi Arabia being Qatar’s neighbor to the west and sharing a land border.

In addition to those who came from Argentina, people from countries such as India, Pakistan, Egypt and Malaysia were also among the enthusiastic crowd that supported Messi and his teammates.

As fans flocked to the nearly 80,000-strong stadium, a Doha-based music group called Qatar Mayyappada welcomed them with drums and percussion – side by side with a group of Argentine fans who had brought their own musical instruments and loudspeakers to cheer up the crowd that gathered themselves in the dozens around them.

“[Late Argentinian footballer Diego] Maradona and Messi unite the world,” 26-year-old Ashiq Siddiq of India told Al Jazeera at Legtaifiya metro station, where he and other Argentine supporters chatted angrily about the team’s line-up and strategy ahead of the match.

Messi’s ‘last chance’

The tournament in Qatar will be Messi’s fifth World Cup, and probably his last.

The 35-year-old, regarded by many as the world’s best footballer, hopes to build on Argentina’s Copa America triumph last year and win the title. a trophy that has eluded him so far in his illustrious career.

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi and teammates warm up before the game [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“This is the year,” said Alejandro Fronto, an Argentine fan who believes this is Messi’s best chance to help his team win the trophy. “Messi will not play in another World Cup after this,” Fronto added.

“He can do it, I believe. The team is more united than in previous tournaments. They just won the Copa America last year, so there is faith in the team.”

Fronti said Argentina will be hard to beat with a strong team that also has the talents of players like Rodrigo De Paul and Angel De Maria.

“I’m only worried about Brazil”.

On how Tuesday’s encounter will go, an optimistic Fronti said it will be “devastating” for Saudi Arabia, predicting Argentina will beat the six goals England scored against Iran.

Saudi fans didn’t seem nervous, however, but hoped their team would cause a stir.

“It will be 1-1,” Mohammed Shaks told A Jazeera at Lusail Stadium, with a cheeky smile as his friends burst into laughter.

“Many people know Argentina, but Saudi Arabia is the best team in Asia… I tell you, there will be a surprise,” he said.

However, the 29-year-old, draped in a Qatari and Saudi flag, said that even if they lose, he’s just happy to be at this game.

“At least I will see Messi in Qatar, it’s like my second home,” he says, pointing out that many Saudis like him have relatives in the host country with whom they are staying.

Fans of Saudi Arabia
Fans of Saudi Arabia and other supporters walk towards Lusail Stadium [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

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